On our last morning we had arranged amongst ourselves for 6 of us to travel on a tour taking up the majority of the morning prior to the time needed to check out. It was slightly more expensive than some that we had looked at but it was pretty much the only one that we could feasibly fit in before we were collected from the hotel for our transfer to the airport. We were collected from the hotel and taken to a boat station where we boarded speedboats and having donned the oh so fetching life jacket. Soon we took off and sped down the river for a speedy trip out to visit the Tunnels.
We were given breakfast on route and some of us chatted, I was quite happy just to sit and watch the scenery as we sped out of Ho Chi Minh City heading in a northerly direction as the crow flies. I found it fascinating watching the speed boat weaving in and out of the water hyacinth, I wondered how often that got caught in rudders. It was wonderful to just watch life on the water just carrying on and to be away from the hustle and bustle of the busy city.
Once we arrived at the tunnels, we were even more grateful of the unholy hour that we had got up at as the car park was pretty much empty with perhaps a coach or two only in view and we realised that we would absolutely be viewing this historic site with very few other hangers on.
The Cu Chi Tunnels became legendary throughout the 60’s really I think when the Viet Cong took control of the 30-40km rural area down to Ho Chi Minh. It is thought that at its absoloute peak the tunnels stretched all the way from Ho Chi Min City right over to the Cambodian boarder. The network of tunnels themselves is thought to have been as long as around 250km in total. It utterly astonishing when you think about that in more detail. Several areas of the network of tunnels were also storeys deep and obviously included int eh construction were countless trap doors, living areas, kitchens storage facilities, weapons bases, forms of hospitals and nursing stations as well as command centres.
The tunnels apparently took around 25 years to build, starting back as far as the 40’s built by a poorly equipped peasant army for the French invasion of the area mainly for communications between villages but also to help the South Vietnamese evade the French troops. They were returned to for the war in the 60’s – extended and strengthened and repaired where needed. The Tet Offensive attached were actually planned from here in 1968.
Over the years the Viet Cong worked on making the tunnels difficult to both detect and also disable. Wooden trap doors were heavily camouflaged with earth and branches and some were even booby trapped. There were examples of these for us to look at on the site and the simplicity of some of the booby traps was unreal yet utterly destructive and maiming to its victims.
There was an opportunity to see if you could disappear down one of the tunnels quickly – most of us in the group looked at each other looked at the hole and worked out that we’d never actually make it in never mind out! We were shown how it was done within a matter of seconds and we did manage to persuade one of the group, a far slender gentleman than the rest of us to have a go as well. It was fascinating.
Because of the deception of the South Vietnamese by their careful and skilful creation of the tunnels they were able to evade so many troops who tried to find them in the area. As a result US and Australian troops launched large scale ground operations to try and identify the location of the tunnels by defoliating rice fields and bulldozed huge amounts of the jungle, evacuated villages and the Americans used a whole host of chemical bombs not he area including napalm and set fire to the dry vegetation but the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air and created cloudbursts that extinguished the fires leaving he Viet Cong safe in their tunnels. Being unsuccessful in thier attempts to flush them out the Americans started sending down ‘tunnel rats’ who ended up in sustaining horrific injuries and thus casualties owing tot he underground fire fights and booby traps.
The Viet Cong were clever, very very clever, when the Americans tried sending down dogs into the tunnels to attack them, the Viet Cong started washing in US soap and wearing US Uniforms so as to confuse the dogs into not attacking them. Owing to the amount of dogs also killed or maimed as a result of the booby traps, which of course they could not spot, the Mexicans started refusing to sending their dogs to their death by going down the tunnels.
It wasn’t until the late 60s that the Americans gave up as such and carpet bombed the entire are with B-52s which destroyed a number of the tunnels as well as anything else that was around at the time. But it was seen merely as a symbolic gesture in the end as the Americans were pretty much on their way out of the war by this time and the tunnels had already served their purpose. It left the area devastated with chemicals left in the soil and water, leaving farmers and workers at risk and the crop yields depleted.
There was an opportunity to go through one of the tunnels but at 1.2m high and only 80cm across and unlit – I decided that I could get what it felt like from above ground without the need to crawl inside myself. I think that I would have found it far too clautrophobic for comfort.
It was an eye opening experience to put it mildly. To suddenly hear gunfire from the area where you were able to pay to fire genuine AK-47s as you were walking around the site was utterly surreal. None of our group fancied shooting the real guns for a small fortune but to just stand and hear the guns going off felt creepy in itself.
From here we headed back to the speed boat and sped our way back up to the terminal that we had left from where we were given some lunch and returned to the hotel in plenty enough time to change, shower finish packing and await our transfer to the airport and home. What a trip, action packed with such a variety of activities and a wonderful guide who really helped me to enjoy the country that in time I would like to return to to explore more of.